A big reason to stay in Shimabara was the location, which easily allows a trip to Unzen Onsen. We did not have time to explore Shimabara the day before, so we stood up early to sneak in one attraction of Shimabara, the Statue of Buddha Entering Nirvana, into our tight schedule, before going to Unzen Onsen. We already saw a sign for it the day before inside the shopping street, and so we just walked there from the Shimabara Station Hotel, where we stayed. The entrance is on the shopping street, and then you have to go through a cemetery. At first, we looked for it inside a building, but the enormous lying Buddha statue is outside, surrounded by graves and the Koto-ji Temple. What a sight!
We walked back to the shopping street and continued to the bus station, which is nearby and a bit south of the train station. All the signs and timetables were in Japanese only, but a friendly staff helped us to get the right bus ticket. Fortunately, we had printed out the Japanese spelling of Unzen Onsen (雲仙) which was displayed at the timetable inside the bus station and also on the bus. There were so many buses coming and going that we had to look out consistently for the right kanji characters on the sign, but finally, the right bus arrived, and the bus driver confirmed for us, that we’re in the right one. It took about 45 minutes until we reached Unzen Onsen and already saw steam!
From the bus stop in Unzen Onsen, which is located in the middle of this small town, below the Manmyo-ji temple, we just had to walk a few steps south until we reached the vast, steaming hot spring fields, that were the main reason for our visit. A lovely woman in the parking area gave us a free map of the grounds and the trails. We walked around there for a while, including a short trail to a memorial for the Christians who have been executed in the hot springs hundreds of years ago.
The whole area inside the mountainous green was quite an experience, with the earth steaming, the water on the ground cooking and the mud bubbling. It was a bit like the bubbling mud pots in Iceland, which we visited last year. We exited the hot spring fields at the southern end, where a free foot bath waited for us, but we skipped it. Instead, we walked back to the one main road in Unzen Onsen and came to an open exhibition hall, where we rested and viewed the pictures of the quite explosive Unzen volcano, which last erupted massively in 1991.
We wanted to go to the Unzen Spa House, which is just a short walk away, but it was closed for renovation. It also had a glass museum inside, which was open, so we opted for that. There was a lot of lavishly decorated glass objects, including shoes. The museum was not that big but was fantastically curated. It was indeed a nice break.
After a short rest in a nearby park, we walked back to the bus station and up to the little Manmyo-ji temple on a hill. The temple was said to have been destroyed several times including especially during the Shimabara rebellion in 1637. There were interesting decorations, and when we opened the door, we were quite surprised to see a huge golden Buddha statue inside – quite a sight.
When we walked back down there was a bus just coming, so we hurried to get it, in the hope, it would go back to Shimabara (the bus driver confirmed). There are more attractions in Unzen Onsen, like the Onsen Shrine, the “Sweets and Toys Museum” and a ropeway up to Mount Unzen. Unfortunately, there’s no bus to the ropeway, and it’s too far to walk so we could not go there. It was still before noon, which was great because we still had a lot to see back in Shimabara. But after the transport to Unzen worked out fine, my ever reliable companion was too bold when he thought he would guess the right bus stop for the “Buried Houses” in Shimabara, which lie south of the city. This time he missed.
We totally misjudged the distance on our printed plan, and we thought about saving time by exiting the bus a stop earlier and walk. We came from the south, and the “Buried Houses” are about 5 kilometres south of the Shimabara Port and 7 kilometres south of the Shimabara Station. Unfortunately, we came to realise, we were still far away and not even on the right main road. To have a little consolation, we went to a nearby restaurant along the way, where we had a good meal. The owner did not speak English, as expected, but we still could communicate our misery, and he showed us the directions and told us to take the bus first. I always find the Japanese to be very accommodating and ready to help. Maybe it’s the cultural thing.
My friend didn’t want to wait for the next bus and thought the man meant just one bus station and then wanted to take a supposed shortcut. It ended bad – we were going along fields and when we finally came to something of a though deserted village, ultimately help arrived in the form of a cab and we basically threw ourselves in front of it, to make it stop for us. The driver couldn’t take us and don’t speak English, but we hoped to have understood something like, he would send another cab. We were too distraught for a plan B, and so we waited and hoped for a taxi. To our relief, a taxicab actually arrived to fetch us. I have definitely gained confidence with the Japanese people. As we had printed out the “Buried Houses” in Japanese, we just had to show the driver and we soon (finally) reached our destination.
The “Buried Houses” were in a much larger complex than we had thought and it was striking to see the consequences of the 1991 eruption of the Mount Unzen and the mudslides.
After having some ice cream and a short rest, we walked back to the main road and went up north and then eastwards to the sea, to go to the Mount Unzen Disaster Memorial Hall, a large museum which is about 1,5 km away from the “Buried Houses”. We passed by a strange statue and were deeply impressed by the inside of the museum. It is quite spectacular, extremely modern and huge. We were just starting to take a look at photos and explanations when we were already signalled by a staff that show is starting. It was a theatre (“Shimabara Taihen Disaster Theatre”) where the story of a devastating eruption of Mount Unzen 200 years ago was played out with a three-dimensional picture-card-show in Kabuki style, even suitable for children. Other highlights included another theatre (“Great Heisei Eruption Theatre”), which moves while you have a big screen in front of you with real pictures of the Mount Unzen and the more recent explosion. You are basically flying up to the volcano and then have the eruption coming for you. Also impressive was a car, where you can hop on (but it doesn’t move) and put up some kind of helmet and have a screen in front of you.
Despite our misadventure earlier there was still a possibility to drive back in time to the beautiful Shimabara Castle, nearby our hotel, which closes at 5.30 p.m. So we walked to the bus stop after the only cab at the museum was grabbed by someone else just in front of us. We had to walk back the same way we came to get to the bus stop for about 10 minutes but go to the north instead of the south at the big crossing. Unfortunately, we had to wait for the next bus more than half an hour and already started to accept our fate that we would not be able to see the castle from inside. The bus arrived and went all the way back to the city centre and even if there was little time left, but it worked out fine. We could go all the way up inside the castle and take a look at the exhibitions inside, which include Samurai and Ninja stuff. The exhibit was primarily about the history of Shimabara, and it’s rulers, the daimyō, starting from the Arita clan (Muromachi period), the Tokugawa shogunate, then the Kōriki clan, Matsudaira clan, and Toda clan. They also have beautiful gardens with strange statues. Two very motivated and happy employees in ninja and samurai costumes, who had been apparently bored, as we were the only guests, even animated us put some outfits on.
It had been a long day, but we were so close to the Samurai/Canal Street, that we just had to go there too. It wasn’t that spectacular, so we soon left to get some food from a little restaurant next to the hotel and went to bed early (after another foot massage by the machine, provided by the hotel…).
The next day we would leave Shimabara and continue to Kagoshima. All said, if you go to Kyushu, you should definitely visit Shimabara. It has a slightly different vibe, more down to earth, and the Disaster Museum and the Buried Houses are unique sights, you don’t get to see anywhere else. Shimabara Castle is a pleasure, and you can easily take a half-day trip to Unzen Onsen. There’s also a train connection to Nagasaki, for which we, unfortunately, did not have time. Another small town reachable by bus from Shimabara would be Obama Onsen.